Of Limbos And Lathers
I only realised a couple of weeks ago that your column was back up and running. I was planning a trip to the kingdom and came to wonder if the rights holder to the website was doing anything with it, only to find I’d missed best part of a year of columns!
Pleased to see it back, and to read the thoughts of someone in a similar situation to myself, i.e. a former long-term Bangkok resident who had moved back home.
Since your column initially stopped, I also made the move back after almost a decade in Bangkok. I reckon that’s about the maximum you can do in the place without going irredeemably native, and still be able to go home and have a good life, career prospects etc.
However, as you too might have found, that length of time in Thailand renders it a big part of your life, and one that’s hard to just cut off entirely. Perhaps we’re doomed to some kind of eternal limbo, caught between two ‘homes’.
Maybe I’ll write you a longer note on the subject at a later time, but having just returned from a week In Bangkok and Pattaya, I thought I’d make a few observations about the bar scene, how it’s changed, how it hasn’t, and where it’s destined.
The trajectory of the bar scene has been entirely predictable. The spiralling rents in the bar areas, the shortage of girls due to irreversible demographic change, and the dissipation and dying off of the ‘monger’ generation have all set the decline in stone.
Unlike many, I always regarded the sparkly neon Soi Cowboy to be a distinctly inferior destination to its more humble past, and to Nana Plaza, and from what I see that gap is widening. Soi Cowboy is an increasingly ersatz facade of a bar area.
The money from rubbernecking tourists was once a handy supplement to the traditional revenue streams, but now it must be the lion’s share of turnover.
Bars like Tilac are crammed with tourist couples outside, with some even standing around waiting for a table while I was there, yet when I went indoors for a leak at around 9:30 PM, there were precisely 5 dancers on stage (including the little side ones) and two customers.
Clearly Tilac would be financially much better off by knocking down its front wall, laying off its few remaining dancers and putting in some tiered seating providing more people-watching opportunities.
And that’s not only Tilac, that would be the clear majority of bars in Soi Cowboy. The only exceptions would be Crazy House, Baccara, and maybe Shark at a stretch. Cowboy 2 was popular when I departed, but was sparsely populated at the time I stuck my head in. (And that’s all I did, as the place smells like they’re storing dead bodies in the ceiling).
So how long before one or more bars take that option? It means lower wages, higher revenue – so what’s stopping them? And just as the regular tourists all but killed off the bar scenes from Patpong to Patong, Soi Cowboy is on the same path.
Nana Plaza’s architecture currently prevents it from being overrun by those tourists. Whilst the mouth of Nana Plaza – between the escalator and Lollipop – is now usually jammed with wide-eyed, iPhone-yielding lookyloos, only the ground floor bars provide them with somewhere to sit and stare. No coincidence that the ground floor bars are the worst in Nana Plaza (though I imagine the Asian-focused bars Obsession and Rainbow 1 and 2 cater well to their markets).
The lack of seating around the 1st and 2nd floor bars of NEP means the tourists can only do a quick walkthrough so they’re not taking space away from the punters.
I had a quick walk down Patpong 2 during the daytime while on my way from A to B. Did notice that there a couple of new gay gogo bars opened there, making it 3 on that soi. With a couple of small ladyboy bars also on Patpong 2, and with the top-grossing bar on Patpong 1 being a ladyboy bar, there seems to be a distinct trend emerging.
If you throw in the nearby gay sois of Silom 4 and Tantawan and that soi off the north side of Surawong, then straight bargoers are in a distinct minority in the greater Patpong area.
You and I have both said before that the industry would benefit if one of the bar areas closed down. Well, perhaps it has happened already, at least when it comes to girls. I wonder how many female gogo dancers even work in Patpong any more. I’d be very surprised if it was more than double figures.
One intriguing thing to note from Pattaya, and it reminded me of your prediction that Indians would be the new generation of bargoers.
I don’t think that’s necessarily so. Putting aside the pitiable wreck that is Walking Street (Soi 15 aside, where the bars are still pretty good) the gogos and beer bars are still overwhelmingly full of westerners.
However a penny dropped for me when, on a whim, I stuck my head into the huge Honey massage centre on Soi Honey. Chatting with the Papasan, I asked him why all the girls (and I mean 49 out of the 50 that were there in early afternoon) were all on the chunky side, or curvy and voluptuous if you wanted to be kind.
He said that three quarters of the customers in the tourist-oriented soapy parlours were Indians and Arabs, and that’s the type of woman they’re after.
Now that place is huge. It has over 200 short-time rooms by my calculation, and he said there are more than 400 women on staff. And there are two other Honey soapy parlours of a similar size nearby.
So while the Sub-continentals / Arabs may make up a growing percentage of the sex tourist market, you won’t see much evidence of that in the bar areas, because they’re all going to be lathered up behind closed doors.
The author cannot be contacted.